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Is divvying up chores driving a wedge between you and your spouse?

Never underestimate the marital damage done by a dirty toilet. According to a new study, reported by the Telegraph, "mundane household chores" are the reason for seven out of 10 divorces, a statistic produced by a British law firm that examined its case files and surveyed 350 people to come up with that figure. The firm reports that bickering about who does what brings on divorce significantly more often than infidelity – by contrast, an affair, it reports, ended one in five of the marriages studied.

The study is skewed since the definition of domestic issues also included fights about money, the most common cause of marital unhappiness – in other words, it's not necessarily who gets the job of scrubbing the toilet, but perhaps whether you spring for a house cleaner.

Still the finding highlights a continuing source modern marital discord, especially as women work longer hours while continuing to do more housework. (Though the gap has been shrinking.)

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To make peace, skip the marriage counsellor: try economics. Emily Oster on Slate has a different take, eschewing suggestions to randomly assign tasks or divide them up based on what everyone likes to do more. The latter falls down, she points out, because nobody wants to use the toilet brush.

Her article suggests that the wrong person is probably doing the dishes in your home because of basic economic principles such as "increasing marginal cost." That is, if the person who is best at doing the chores is doing all (or most) of them and gets, well, tired, they won't be working at their best.

At the same time, dividing jobs down the middle, she explains, creates inefficiency: You may be still going strong completing your chore list, while your spouse, who was lousy at it to start with, is falling apart. That's where the "comparative advantage" comes in. It's basically the notion that if you are really good at the laundry and only marginally better at grocery shopping, your spouse should probably go to the store. (Oster observes that another economic principle then results: The more your spouse shops, the better they get. That is "learning by doing.")

But if learning by doing is the objective, wouldn't it just be more innovative to expand a family's work force – i.e. the kids? Call it "labour market flexibility" and hand off the dish rag.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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